Size Matters … and small is not always good
13 Thursday Jun 2013
Our national healthcare debate has employed tortured arguments for years to rationalize sustaining umpteen health care plans. It is claimed there is value to consumers in having to slog through the various plans of myriad private insurance companies and health care corporations, all in the name of “choice”. This nonsense continues unabated, in ever-new arenas because, seemingly, we the people are unable or unwilling to work an elementary maxima-minima problem.
The problem is just this: how to minimize economic risk for all from rare, adverse events. And the answer — the one, best answer — is simply: risk must be pooled together in one group alone. Any alternative requires carving that giant, solitary pooled group of risk into a number greater than one, that is into more than one group. And when parsed, what follows necessarily is that risk is distributed between groups disproportionately; higher within some, and lower in others, relative to the rest.
To maximize benefit among everyone in an entire population, requires minimizing the number of smaller pools the population is carved into. There is no other answer that accommodates everyone. It is possible to maximize benefit for some from smaller pools of risk, but not for all.
Thus employing multiple, private insurance companies elevates economic risk for some, and is very inefficient. And by analogy, the same holds true for Education. To minimize educational “risk” for all requires pooling risk into one large system.
Notice this is in direct contradiction of recent Education Reform trends dividing our educational system into ever-increasing numbers of different schools of ever-diminishing size. This essentially parses educational “risk” into inefficient, separate pools of, ultimately, winners and losers.
Instead, running a unified, consolidated school system brings economy of scale to bear, equalizing educational “risk”. It permits access to services for rare events for the whole group. While any given small school system might not be able to employ staff for problems that occur rarely, when the served population is large, it becomes possible to afford such rare services. These include, say, speech therapy and tutoring, advanced and honors courses, special assistance for the physically, behaviorally or intellectually challenged. It is the means – and the only means – by which we can afford a diversity of services as varied as the needs of our learning public.
Moreover these ancillary services are not just curricular, they include the whole panorama which brings school beyond the utilitarian and into the realm of fun. Among the panoply afforded by big-ness is: varied technical classes including industrial arts, auto mechanics and drafting, business arts; artistic endeavors such as studio arts, art history, dance, music, orchestra, band, choir, small ensemble coaching, beginning instruments, music theory; critical satellite services such as career counseling, psychological counseling, speech therapy and a range of health services from therapeutic to preventative, the library and its associated offerings from tutoring to escape from peer pressure through a good book; athletic activities including baseball and football, swimming, golfing and cheerleading; extracurricular scholastics such as robotics and computer gaming, science and math clubs.
These amenities are what a large school system can afford our pupils. ALL of this is the stuff of an academic community, where the life of the mind forms a basis for collective learning of all sorts.
Note carefully that maximizing benefit to all means minimizing the number of separate pools of risk. But inside of each of these pools, these schools as it were, the economies of scale can look very different. Empirically, one of the strongest determinants of academic success is a small ratio of teacher to students inside the classroom itself. Like the ideology of overall numbers of schools or risk-pools, small is good: very good. As classroom size diminishes, classroom success increases, and it continues to do so. Thirty pupils per class is better than 35, 25 is better than 30, 20 than 25 and 15 better yet. That is why private schools routinely boast class sizes below 20 students per class.
So while the ideological benefit of small class size is irrefutable, it is in no way equivalent to a small school. An educational setting encompasses more than the classroom itself. While small in the classroom is good, small outside of the classroom is not.
Breaking down a large school system into smaller, independent iterations of the same general pattern, means repeating costs that could otherwise have been shared. This includes costs of: administration, supplies and purchasing, clerical services, physical maintenance.
Given fixed funding, the only way to balance budgets is to degrade quality of these services, an impoverishment for one and all. For all, that is, except vendors of the repeated services. They benefit. The entities that stand to profit by repeated selling of the same service separately, stand to benefit financially. These vendors, not to put too fine a point on it, benefit at the expense of our children’s very educational opportunities. These privateers are benefitting, essentially, at the potential of our children’s very lives.
Size does matter, but one doesn’t fit all things Educational. Minimize school size => maximize outside vendors’ profit. Minimize class size => maximize student learning.